The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Modern Day Pornography (2013)

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The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Modern Day Pornography 

When being close with another girl, I started noticing how porn had affected my sex life....I no longer feel anything during sex. I imagine I am in a porn scene... and whenever I get rid of my concentration for a while, I get completely turned off. This is nothing like the making love I used to do with my first, real love - a feeling I still deeply miss. (Reddit)


         With over 26 million sites dedicated to pornography and more being added every day, the internet has opened up a new means by which people can access pornographic material. At any given moment, around 29 thousand people around the world, 66% of them male, are viewing pornography (Gallagher, 2010). This free and easy access to pornographic materials is unprecedented in human history and its effects on the human brain and psyche have not been thoroughly studied. In this paper I will explain why modern day access to pornography is different than in previous generations and how this exposure to pornographic material can have negative consequences.

History of Sexual Images

         Human depictions of sexual acts stretch as far back as we have records of civilization. Paleolithic cave paintings dating back 12,000 years ago show depictions of human genitalia (Sandars, 1968). For thousands of years, the medium by which sexual acts were depicted was images. Paintings, engravings, sculptures, and then magazines, all were used by one culture or another to depict sexual acts. In 1895, a major paradigm shift in sexually explicit media occurred with the invention of the motion picture. In the same year that the Lumière brothers gave the first public demonstration of their motion picture projector, pornographic film production began (Le Coucher, 1895). From then until the 1980’s, pornography distribution occurred predominantly through film and magazines. With the digital revolution and the arrival of internet and personal computers into the average household, access to pornography shifted strongly in favor of digital videos and images instead of physical films and movies. In the 1980’s alone, sales of magazines dropped 50% and have continued to decline since then (Kimmel, 2005). Now, in the 21st century, pornography has almost become synonymous with the internet which is by far the greatest distributor of pornographic material. Over a quarter of all downloads that occur on the internet are pornographic and over 68 million porn related searches are carried out via search engines (Gallagher, 2010).

         If human depictions of sexuality have been a part of almost all civilizations that we have a record of, why is modern day pornography any different? There are several aspects to the answer for this question. Before the invention of the internet, access to pornographic materials was limited by age, money, and availability. In order to acquire magazines and images, a person would need to physically go out and purchase it. Laws often required that a person be of a minimum age in order to purchase pornographic materials, so exposure happened at a much later age. Doubtlessly, this did not always hold true, and minors most likely did get a hold of pornographic materials. However, this required considerable effort on their part and so the resulting material was limited in scope. With internet pornography, the only requirement to find pornographic content is to have a home computer or smartphone and the ability to mark a checkbox certifying that the user is above 18 years old. Another difference between modern day pornography and previous sexual depictions is the variety and novelty offered on the internet. The availability of porn was limited by the size of the magazine and number of images. With internet porn, the over 1.3 billion images ensure that there will always be porn available that the user has not seen before. This level of novelty and variety in porn is something that no one before the late 1990’s had access to.

Physiological Effects    

         The question is, does this shift in pornography have an effect on us? Does it change the way we view the world or are its effects the same as the sexually explicit images found on wall paintings millennia ago? Psychiatrist Norman Doidge argues that pornography has an actual physiological and psychological effect that makes it addictive. He reports how he noticed many male clients coming to his clinic with sexual problems that affected their relationships. None of these males were loners, or withdrawn from society. All were men in comfortable jobs in normal relationships or marriages. Doidge noticed that these men would report, often in passing, that although they considered their sexual partners attractive, they had increasing difficulty in becoming aroused. Upon further questioning, they admitted that pornography use was leading to less excitement during sex. Instead of enjoying the act of intercourse, they were forced to fantasize about being part of a porn script in order to become aroused. Many actively asked their partners to act like porn stars, to enact scenarios they had seen on the internet–often scenes that involved violence. When questioned further about their own pornography use, they said that they needed more and more extreme porn in order to reach their previous level of arousal (Doidge, 2007).

         The key to this change can be explained by a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine plays many roles in the brain, but most importantly, is in charge of reward-driven learning. Almost every type of reward that has been studied in a laboratory setting has shown an increase in the level of dopamine transmission in the brain (Stolerman, 2010). Dopamine is a normal chemical that is found in the human body. Among the functions when it is normally released is during intercourse, when orgasm occurs  However, just like it does with heroin, the body develops tolerance to dopamine released while watching pornography. This is different than orgasm during sexual intercourse when there are multiple chemical and hormonal changes that occur before and after the release of dopamine, causing a complex interaction in the body which results in it not developing a tolerance to any of the hormones and neurotransmitters that are released (Doidge, 2007).

         Understanding the flood of dopamine explains why pornography changes behavior. From a physiological point of view, the brain is building up a tolerance to material it sees, just like the body builds up tolerance to drugs it uses. This explains why users of pornography report needing increasingly extreme videos in order to become aroused (Doidge, 2007). In the past, this would have been impossible to acquire, but with the internet, escalation can happen with ease. However, dopamine does not cause just a physiological change but a behavioral one as well. Dopamine causes strong desire in the body when it enters. When a person is flooded with dopamine while watching pornography, it creates a stronger response to that pornography. The mind then associates pornography with a rush of dopamine and thus is more likely to repeat the behavior that releases dopamine, i.e. watching pornography. Since the rate of return on dopamine is diminishing, higher levels of pornography are needed to get the same feeling of desire from dopamine (Doidge, 2007). Interestingly, dopamine is a neurotransmitter which causes desire, not pleasure. What this means is that many clients who come to mental health experts for help because pornography is destroying their relationships report not getting any pleasure from watching pornographic materials but are still unable to stop.

Psychological Effects

         This biological change in the brain has very real psychological and social ramifications. In a study done to test the effect of pornography on relationship commitment, the results showed that adults who consumed higher levels of pornography were likely to show decreased commitment to their partners (Lambert, 2012). In this study, participants were divided into two groups and given one of two tasks. One group was asked to refrain from watching pornography for the week while the control group was assigned a non-related self control task. The results showed that the group who consumed pornography during the study were more likely to flirt with extra-dyadic partners at its conclusion. In a normal relationship, this could mean an increased likelihood for extramarital affairs that in turn could possibly end the relationship.

         This experiment is supported by many other studies as well. A majority of females whose partners regularly consume pornography perceive their partners use to be a threat to the stability of their relationship (Bergner and Bridges, 2002).  In addition, the use of pornography increases the likelihood that couples will separate or divorce (Schneider, 2000). At the time of this report, I was unable to find similar statistics for males whose partners regularly consumed pornography.

         Besides increasing the likelihood of ending a relationship, usage of pornography has been linked to decreased satisfaction in a relationship. In an early experiment, it was found that men who consumed pornography were more dominating and less attentive towards their partners (Zillman and Bryant, 1988). Men self-report finding less pleasure in sex with their partners, even when they don’t report a decrease in level of attractiveness of their partner (Philaretou, 2005). Many say that in order to become fully aroused and orgasm, they must mentally visualize porn scenes they had previously seen (Doidge, 2007).

         Finally, self-reports of men who admit they consume too much pornographic material show that a constant theme is the shift in approach to women. A study done at Yale shows that rather than objectifying women, exposure to porn makes man “animalify” women. Men exposed to pornography show an increased likelihood to treat women as though they lack the capacity for complex thinking and reasoning while still treating them as capable of having strong emotional responses (Gray, 2011).

         Some studies do show that pornography may be beneficial to relationships (Hald and Malamuth, 2008). However, a closer examination of the studies shows that the majority of the findings do not show an increase in the well-being of the romantic relationships but rather self-reported enhancements of sexual performance and attitudes. Reports from partners are overwhelmingly negative and empirical data shows that sexual please decreases with increased pornography use. It is also likely that the respondents who self report improvements are looking for a way to justify their consumption of pornography.


         What repercussions do these findings have on the field of mental health therapy? Most importantly, mental health therapists need to realize the effects that pornography can have in a relationship. Therapists who are not aware of this may misdiagnose a relationship and assign treatments that are ineffective. In one case study, a couple discontinued treatment from one therapist and found another who correctly deduced that the couple’s strained relationship was a result of pornography addiction and not simple lack of trust (Ford, 2012). This case study suggests that there may be many couples who go to a therapist who doesn’t realize the implications of pornography addiction and are thus not given the help they need, potentially resulting in the end of a salvageable relationship.

         The pervasive role of pornography in today’s society has many unforeseen consequences. In this paper, I’ve discussed why pornography in the modern age is different than sexually explicit images in the past. This shift has had sweeping changes on the human brain and human behavior. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Sexual research in this subfield is limited and there are many unanswered questions. Are there similar changes in women who regularly watch pornographic videos? Are relationships between men and men and women and women affected by the use of pornography? Does the initial attitude of a person towards sexuality before they are introduced to pornography change the way it affects them? What factors increase the likelihood that a person will be affected by viewing pornography? These are just some of the many questions that need to be answered and show that this is a subfield with plenty of potential for further research.


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